Fix the schools? “We need to help Daisy”

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Posted on 10th October 2010 by Judy Breck in Mobiles | Next | Obamaschool | Schools we now have

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A Washington Post Opinion piece this morning makes two things plain: the leaders of massive failing USA public schools have no new ideas, and any kid can tell you what is really needed.

This WaPo featured article is actually titled: “How to fix our schools,” and signed by the top individuals running the biggest districts where 2.5 million children attend and school failures are rampant. We are getting here, a “manifesto” from the heads of school districts in New York City, Washington DC, Chicago, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Boston and others.

If you are the parent of young children whose schooling will play out over the next decade, how could you read this article and fail be crushed by what it means for your kids? There is nothing new suggested. What is suggested has been tried and proven virtually impossible to accomplish. The theme is we need to get rid of bad teachers and attract good teachers. There is no whisper of blame for the bureaucratic and vested interests who control the schools (and control the jobs of the authors of the article).

The video interview embedded above of Michelle Rhee, chancellor of the D.C. Public School system, accompanies the article. Extremely revealing, in the interview at 3.40, is her description of taking her daughters, ages 8 and 11, to see the “Waiting for Superman” movie about American public schools. Rhee says that after seeing the movie — which features five students combatting problems with public schools — the Rhee daughters reacted by worrying about the specific kids, not the system. They kept saying, their mother reports: “What are we going to do about Daisy? Can somebody help Daisy?” Rhee tried, she goes on to say, to explain to her daughters that each individual child in the movie represents millions of real kids. How does that answer her daughter’s question?

Out of the mouths of babes: “Why not help Daisy?”

The theme of this blog is to advocate that Daisy take schooling into her own hands. Here is how to help Daisy right now:

1. Get her a mobile browser that is her own device and that has 24/7 wireless connectivity to the internet. A laptop, tablet, or smart phone accomplish this step.

2. Give her some assistance on learning how to use the open online websites and networks to learn real knowledge. Force her school to let her use her mobile as she wishes at school, as long as it is not disruptive.

These two steps are something we could actually accomplish very quickly and cheaply for millions of kids — while those power people at the schools go around the teachers-need-to-be-better circle once again. It is even possible that the pressure of having students able to learn using sources outside of school may actually pressure the education establishment into making real changes.

Slave ships and awful schools

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Posted on 22nd September 2010 by Judy Breck in Equality | Mobiles | Obamaschool | Schools we now have

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Nearly seven million people have watched this video on YouTube. It is inspirational in many ways, most powerfully for me in its haunting echos of those trapped below the decks of slave ships. The video radiates creativity and beauty of the music that emerged from the black slaves and their descendants in early America.

There is a specter from those days that haunts us once again: the increasing servitude and dependency being spun out of public schools that are mainly black and broadly inferior to schools for other kinds of kids. To great fanfare the Obama administration promises to spend billions of dollars making some failing schools better. But is that anything more than cleaning up the slave ships a bit? We will continue to have one kind of school that turns out minimally employable descendants of slaves and the other kind of school that turns out the competent class — unless fundamental educational reconfiguring takes place.

A way is now increasingly effective for jumping ship from the limitations of awful public schools. It is possible learn whatever these schools teach very easily online — and to learn online a very great deal more. And as posted here yesterday, online learning does not know if the hand clicking in is black, white, or even Neptune green.

Should blacks and Hispanics be sought for Elena Kagan’s high school?

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Posted on 5th August 2010 by Judy Breck in Equality | Mobiles | Next | Obamaschool | Schools we now have

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In a very revealing New York Times article today, a multiracial boy graduating from Elena Kagan’s elite Hunter public high school said this in his graduation speech:

“If you truly believe that the demographics of Hunter represent the distribution of intelligence in this city,” he said, “then you must believe that the Upper West Side, Bayside and Flushing are intrinsically more intelligent than the South Bronx, Bedford-Stuyvesant and Washington Heights. And I refuse to accept that.”

The article describes the throes of guilt the school is dealing with because its admission test has created these statistics: “This past year, it was 3 percent black and 1 percent Hispanic; the balance was 47 percent Asian and 41 percent white, with the other 8 percent of students identifying themselves as multiracial. The public school system as a whole is 70 percent black and Hispanic.” The Hunter admissions test, reports the article, “has remained essentially unchanged for decades” and was presumably taken by sixth-grader Elena Kagan to gain her own admission into Hunter.

Judson Hudson, age 18, refuses to accept the “demographics of intelligence” Hunter represents. If Judson is correct, what then is going on here? Surely there is something more to be done about this disparity than to use Hunter as a whipping boy on the front page of the New York Times.

The problem is not that Hunter is a great school. The real problem is that most primarily black and Hispanic New York City public schools are often just awful. Sixth-graders from awful schools score poorly on Hunter’s test.

How can the true demographics of intelligence of New York City be reflected in the level of educational achievement of the next generation of New York City youngsters? A powerful new tool is coming into prominence: individual access to online knowledge. There is today a seven-year-old in a Bedford-Stuyvesant project practicing her vocabulary outside of school, on her mobile. By taking schooling into her own hands, she has a real chance to sit one day on the United States Supreme Court.

That chance is virtually nonexistent for children whose only education is obtained in awful NYC public schools. Shoving a few kids from the projects into Hunter simply applies another bandaid to crumbling public [socialized] education and to our collective guilt.

A plea to education scholars not to look backward

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Posted on 3rd March 2010 by Judy Breck in Next | Schools we now have

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“Scholar’s School Reform U-Turn Shakes Up Debate” is the headline of a New York Times article today. Here is the lede:

Diane Ravitch, the education historian who built her intellectual reputation battling progressive educators and served in the first Bush administration’s Education Department, is in the final stages of an astonishing, slow-motion about-face on almost every stand she once took on American schooling.

The article is a very interesting review of the chaos that exists now in education theory. Notice, though, that there is no mention in the article of any sort of new idea for education. The headline is about a U-Turn — which is the act of swinging around to the opposite direction to go back where you came from.

Please, no!

It frustrates me that all of the pedagogues mentioned in the article stare unblinkingly back at the 20th century, looking for methods there. That is not where answers will be found. The new century’s kids connect to knowledge on the open internet. Only by putting that fact at the core can education be reconfigured for the 21st century.

Teaching, schools, assessment need to be reconfigured around the new location of knowledge. Chester Finn comes out best in my view in this article. Yes, “blow up” the old public school system — but does he yet have step two? The article does not have a hint of what it means for education to go down the opening road ahead. Doing so means connecting every kid individually into the global knowledge commons, and around that, redesigning what students do for discourse, arts, socialization, apprenticing and the rest of what we call “education” that is not about having access to subject knowledge.

Gifted black teens hunger to learn from a sparse intellectual table

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Posted on 11th February 2010 by Judy Breck in Equality | Findability | Mobiles

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This needs to be said: Public schooling is perpetuating a black underclass and Obamaschool will make this worse, and more permanent.

The Obamaschool “Race to the Top” panders to black kids (or to put it politically correctly: to minority kids). ED.gov describes the program this way: “Through Race to the Top, we are asking States to advance reforms . . .” (which are summarized on the EdFed website). “Reforms” means fix things. Obama is looking for positive vibes by allocating big money (again!) to fix schools. Billions more tax dollars are about to cascade into public education. We already spend over $11,000 per child each year in pubic schools, more than a third more than it is taking in private schools to provide a far superior year of learning. (Chart from Cato video Economic 101)

This fixing the schools approach is perpetuating a black underclass. Making a public school a little bit better than awful does not release its students to partake at the bountiful intellectual table. They remain in the education underclass. I have watched it happen up close for thirty years.

Since 1982, I have worked in various capacities as a partnering volunteer in the New York City public schools. I got some background back in the 1960s when I taught high school for one year in El Paso, Texas. During that year I organized and coached debate teams at El Paso High School where I was teaching history. The boys I coached won the Texas State AAAA Championship and the girls team won the West Texas District title.

In the 1990s when I volunteered to coach a debate team at Martin Luther King, Jr. High School in New York City, I learned first hand what we are doing in public schools to bright black students. King HS is only a block from the Juilliard School of Music in Manhattan, and is across the street from LaGuardia High School (of “Fame” fame). The neighboring schools are exciting centers of learning; King not so much, and its students are primarily black. I once asked the kids I was coaching at King if there was any student in their school who was white, and they told me they did not think so.

The students who volunteered for the King debate team were at least as intelligent and intellectually curious and agile as the El Paso High School students whom I coached. The two boys who won the Texas debate trophy were accepted at Stanford University and Northwestern University respectively. The plans after high school graduation for the students I coached at King were go into the military, attend a traditional black college, or not to get any further education. One of the girls told me she would go the black college because they would give her remedial classes when she got there to “teach me what I didn’t learn in high school.”

During my three decades of knowing New York City public school students I have met many bright, able, eager black boys and girls. I have judged them in citywide debate contests, I have watched them in a large moot court competition which I helped organize during the decade that I administered a MENTOR program that paired dozens of public high schools with law firm mentors.

There is a common denominator among brilliant black kids who go through non-premium public schools. The common denominator — that cuts off their future — is that the have not learned much. Their vocabularies are noticeably small. They have little depth of knowledge in science. They have not read extensively in literature. And so, sadly, on.

Handschooling can fill the knowledge access deficit in a big way.

At the least, handschooling can make a pivotal difference for bright kids like the King debaters. We can put the internet in their pockets even as early as when they start school. Youngsters like these can be given the responsibility to take care of a mobile device. Even if we keep on forcing them by law to sit through public school classes where little is taught, they can uses their mobile devices to follow their natural curiosity to extend their learning online.

I think of one of the King debaters named Kurt — a handsome fellow, who was modest, highly intelligent, well-mannered, determined, and a natural leader. He entered the U.S. Army after high school. I feel sure he devoured the instruction the Army gave him, gaining competency. But in grade school his young brain did not ramify with math concepts to enrich it — because only the simplest arithmetic was offered in his public grade school. His early reading years were not as voracious as they could have been, his vocabulary remained small, limiting his concepts. Kurt and the other debaters treasured a class given by a tiny, aging assistant principal who challenged them with some discourse in literature. These gifted teenagers hungered to learn from a sparse intellectual table.

Many race to the top sorts of efforts have been made during the thirty years I have been acquainted with King HS. When I first got involved with the New York City public schools, for six years I helped staff President Reagan’s annual White House Conference on Partnerships in Education, an event that brought together hundreds of programs seeking to make schools better. That was followed by President George H.W. Bush declaring himself the “Education President.” Presidents Clinton and G.W. Bush made education a priority as well. These efforts tried to move schools toward the top. Many efforts have been and are being made to improve the achievement of various schools and minority groups. Schools have not improved.

The real race to the top is among individuals. Black students like the debaters I coached at King should be at the head of the race but they are cut off at the knees at public school in the overall race to the top of their generation. At King all the students — not just the brightest — are held back by being there because expectations are low and knowledge scarce. There are races for the middle, and races to do a little better. Knowledge is the fuel for the sprint and for the marathon of education. Handschooling is a straightforward way to connect all of the the young generation with full knowledge — to make the race to the top individual and fair. Let’s do it!